U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has accused China of being a “destabilizing” force in the South China Sea, prompting a rebuke from Beijing in which Washington was accused of “threat and intimidation.”
The diplomatic contretemps occurred at an international security conference Saturday in Singapore, during which Hagel confronted China’s handling of territorial disputes with its Asian neighbors in forthright language.
"In recent months, China has undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea,” he said, adding that the U.S. "will not look the other way" when international maritime rules and standards were being ignored.
The comments led to an immediate response from Beijing. Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the General Staff, told Hagel: "you were very candid this morning and, to be frank, more than our expectation."
In comments to reporters, he later added: "I felt that Secretary Hagel's speech is full of hegemonism, threat and intimidation."
Reporters were taken from the meeting room before Hagel responded. But Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Hagel told Wang that all regional disputes should be solved through diplomacy, and Hagel encouraged China to foster dialogue with neighboring nations.
Hagel also used his speech at Singapore's Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia biggest security forum, to single out China for cyberspying against the U.S. While this has been a persistent complaint by the U.S., it was less than two weeks after the Obama administration charged five Chinese military officers with hacking into American companies to steal trade secrets.
The Chinese, in response, suspended participation in a U.S.-China Cyber Working Group, and released a report that said the U.S. is conducting unscrupulous cyberespionage and that China is a major target.
Noting the suspension, Hagel said the U.S. would continue to raise cyberissues with the Chinese "because dialogue is essential for reducing the risk of miscalculation and escalation in cyberspace."
But it is his comments on the ongoing dispute in the South China Seas that is likely to draw most attention.
In comments aimed directly at China, Hagel said the U.S. opposes any country's use of intimidation or threat of force to assert territorial claims.
"All nations of the region, including China, have a choice: to unite, and recommit to a stable regional order, or, to walk away from that commitment and risk the peace and security that has benefited millions of people throughout the Asia-Pacific, and billions of people around the world," he said.
Only if provoked
In Beijing, President Xi Jinping said China would not initiate aggressive action in the South China Sea but would respond if others did, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"We will never stir up trouble, but will react in the necessary way to the provocations of countries involved," Xinhua quoted Xi as saying in a meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia.
China claims almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Seas, and dismisses competing claims from Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia.
Japan also has a territorial row with China over islands in the East China Sea. Tensions have surged in recent weeks after China placed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam, and the Philippines said Beijing could be building an airstrip on a disputed island.
Japan's defense ministry said Chinese SU-27 fighters came as close as 170 feet to a Japanese OP-3C surveillance plane near disputed islets last week and within 98 feet of a YS-11EB electronic intelligence aircraft.
Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tokyo perceived an "increasingly severe regional security environment."
"It is unfortunate that there are security concerns in the East and South China Seas," he said. "Japan as well as all concerned parties must uphold the rule of law and never attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force."
On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pitched his plan for Japan to take on a bigger international security role and told the Singapore forum that Tokyo would offer its "utmost support" to Southeast Asian countries in their efforts to protect their seas and airspace.
In a pointed dig at China, he said Japan would provide coastguard patrol boats to the Philippines and Vietnam.
Hagel may have been stern in his rhetoric, but some Asian leaders have expressed worries that the U.S. is doing little more than paying lip service to the complaints, fueling doubts about America's commitment to the region.
In an effort to address those concerns, Hagel also used his speech to reassure Asia-Pacific nations that despite persistent budget woes and increasing demands for military aid across Africa and Europe, the U.S. was strongly committed to Asia.
Allies have questioned how serious the U.S. is about its renewed focus on Asia, particularly as the recent unrest in Ukraine and terrorist threats in North Africa have garnered more attention. Also, President Barack Obama's national security speech this past week made no mention of the Asia-Pacific.
"The rebalance is not a goal, not a promise or a vision — it is a reality," Hagel said.
He laid out a list of moves the U.S. has made to increase troops, ships and military assets in the region, provide missile defense systems to Japan, sell sophisticated drones and other aircraft to Korea, and expand defense cooperation with Australia, New Zealand and India.
Hagel said the U.S. is continuing to reach out to China. Despite persistent differences, Washington and Beijing have been trying to improve their military relations, expand communications between their forces and conduct joint exercises.
"Continued progress throughout the Asia-Pacific is achievable, but hardly inevitable," Hagel told the audience at the Shangri-La Dialogue. "The security and prosperity we have enjoyed for decades cannot be assured unless all nations, all our nations have the wisdom, vision, and will to work together to address these challenges."
Al Jazeera and Wire Services